PERSONAL INJURY – NEGLIGENCE IN FAILING TO PROVIDE ADEQUATE SECURITY – PLAINTIFF’S PRIMA FACIE CASE SHOULD HAVE GONE TO JURY
Summary: This case involved a movie theater usher (Cruz) who was assaulted by patrons. The First Department reversed the lower court’s decision, which did not allow an expert witness to testify for Cruz and ultimately dismissed Cruz’s case for not stating a prima facie case. The First Department ruled that the plaintiff did state a prima facie case for negligence, and that a jury should have been permitted to decide on it. The First Department also held that plaintiff’s witness met the qualifications of an expert and should have been allowed to testify as to the facts surrounding the assault and as to his knowledge of prior and unruly behavior, especially since the lower court had dismissed plaintiff’s case because of lack of proof of notice.
Facts: Plaintiff Cruz, who was employed as an usher, was attacked by patrons in a movie theatre owned and operated by RKO. Security at the theatre was provided by Madison Detective Bureaus. On the night of the incident, all three security guards on duty were downstairs near the box office, not on the upper floor where the doors to the different theaters were located. At one point, the ticket taker called one of guards, Brian Camp, upstairs, where three men were assaulting Cruz and a candy stand attendant who had asked for their ticket stubs.
Holdings of the Courts Below: Plaintiff brought a complaint in Supreme Court, Bronx County. Plaintiff sought to introduce the testimony of Michael Wright, an acting supervisor of security guards for Madison. The court refused to permit Wright to testify as an expert witness or as a witness on the other issues. After the completion of plainitff’s case, the court granted Madison and RKO’s motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to establish a prima facie case. Plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Division, First Department.
Discussion: The First Department reversed and remanded for a new trial. It held that “[a] motion to dismiss the complaint at the close of plaintiff’s case should not be granted unless it is clear that by no rational process could the jury find in favor of the plaintiff. The trial court was obliged to view the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, giving them the benefit of every inference which could reasonably be drawn from the facts presented at trial and resolving all questions as to witnesses’ credibility in plaintiff’s favor. A prima facie case requires plaintiff to show the existence of a duty owing by defendant to the plaintiff, defendant’s failure to discharge that duty, and an injury to plaintiff proximately resulting from such failure.” 137 A.D.2d at 89-90. The court found that the plaintiff had made out a prima facie case, and that the jury could have found that Madison and/or its employees had disobeyed RKO’s directives to provide security on the upper level.
Furthermore, the court held that the jury reasonably could have found that the attack on Cruz could have been foreseen by Madison and was proximately caused by Madison’s original, wrongful acts. The court held that “[t]he issues of foreseeability, the duty owed plaintiff, and proximate cause were questions of fact which the jury should have been permitted to decide in this case.” 137 A.D.2d at 91. [all cites above omitted]
The court also held that the trial court should not have excluded testimony by Wright as to the facts of the incident and his knowledge of prior/unruly behavior (such as patrons not paying), especially when the court later ruled that lack of proof of notice was fatal to plaintiffs’ prima facie case. Finally, the First Department ruled that Wright met the qualifications for an expert witness and that the trial court abused its discretion in not permitting him to testify in that capacity on security standards.